The people of Sydney want to dance. They want thrills and mystery and to see bodies cavort through the night. They want to not know whether that person is a he or a she, and to gasp in wonder at their contortions, swoon to their song.
And so those who can afford it pay $70-$86 (plus booking fee) to see Pigalle, a one-hour cabaret at The MagicMirrors Spiegeltent. Most of the two-week season has sold out before opening night, because Pigalle banks on the tremendous success of precursors La Clique and La Soirée.
I was bracing myself for bad French accents put on by Anglophone performers, whose lineage in fact is closer to those sizzling, multi-talented 21st century cabarets. (UK based, with Australian roots going back 15 years, La Clique won an Olivier Award and along with La Soirée is still running.) But, despite the premise of a “once glamorous but now fading Parisian neighbourhood” as the setting for Pigalle, the music was disco, and the artists didn’t speak. Still, it turned out to be completely ironic that the opening track was The Crusaders’ homage to urban cool, Streetlife.
iOTA sang with gusto but the sound was so awful we could barely hear him over the backing track. Marcia Hines’ signature low notes were completely lost, and I wondered how much the poor sound was affecting the artists as Marcia looked lost, too.
Kathryn McLaughlin’s fire routine was a standout. Emerging resplendent in a sequinned floor-length gown, she slowly stripped then coated her chest and arms in flames, swallowing fire, spitting it back out, spinning her sticks in perfect rhythm.
Funky and cute though they were, backing dancer-singers Chaska Halliday and Zachary Webster didn’t do anything more than that, and their inclusion in what is essentially a circus and vaudevillian art form has to be questioned.
Aerial artist Yammal Rodriguez has a pedigree going back to La Soirée and pulled off a fine routine, but the bar is high and she wasn’t given much time; perhaps, as absent as he seemed elsewhere, the director (Craig Ilott) had no idea what to do with her. Hugo Desmarais, who partnered Rodriguez, gave us some witty front row action (the people of Sydney also love having their bald heads licked, they love being lap-danced), but again, was in the air for just a few minutes.
I adore iOTA: his Smoke and Mirrors from the 2012 Sydney Festival was another great hometown cabaret. He led his troupe valiantly, and looked fabulous in his first costume, an angular short cape. But like British burlesque star Kitty Bang Bang, he wasn’t given enough to do.
And Matt Marshall’s lighting? A huge bank, more suitable for a big theatre, glared so harshly we could hardly see sometimes.
You would think nothing could go wrong with such fantastic music, and some stellar talent. One after another, iconic tunes rolled through the awful sound system like divas through torn curtains, getting feet tapping and punters singing (Knock on Wood, Lost in Music, Mighty Real, Supernature). But again, nothing was done with these songs, which was a shame as so many also have great lyrics, borne from that signature 1970s meld of hedonism and civil rights. Despite some fine performers, there was a distinct lack of variety and depth in the talent, and zero politics.
Then suddenly it was all over. After just over an hour, we were ushered out. No lingering in art deco splendour of The Famous Spiegeltent, no shots of whisky or bourbon available from the festival bar outside, because, as the barman explained to me, ‘People get really drunk on them.’ Really? I’ve never seen any problems at Hyde Park during the Sydney Festival, nor even heard of any. I must remember my hip flask next time.
Oh Sydney, I blame your powermongers for this drab experience. Not the artists nor you, Sydney. You are still a hotbed of daring cabaret, scabrous rock & roll and dirty queer performance with a tiny portion of events ‘glittering and raucous’ as this was promised to be – and many more that would be were they not squashed out of existence by a corporate culture that dishes up cold hamburgers like Pigalle. (Incidentally, that famous Parisian neighbourhood was never glamorous; cabaret has always sprung from a fecund bed of grime, vulgarity, talent and duress, and Pigalle has been a tourist quartier for over 50 years.)
So, people, if you want to see flesh, and unveil your own; if you want to dance all night til the break of dawn, don’t waste your money on this. Go see Betty Grumble, Anita Douche, Vashti Hughes or Glitta Supernova. If you want rock & roll, go see White Knuckle Fever. If you want to party, get off the beaten track.
Write letters to your politicians and demand your freedom in our over-policed public spaces. From the top down, these restrictions are limiting all of us, reducing producers to cynics who treat their audiences like cashed-up ignoramuses who’ve never ventured beyond their white bread suburbs.
Is that what the people of Sydney have become?
Be better, demand more.